Dating back to the Edo period, the Nakasendo is an ancient route that cuts through the mountains of central Japan connecting Tokyo and Kyoto, both of which have served as capital cities. For one of the most scenic segments of the over 500 kilometer road, you can visit the well-preserved section between the post towns of Magome and Tsumago, traditionally used as resting places for officials, samurai and other passerby (who were accommodated based on their ranking). The post towns have been preserved and contain many buildings with traditional Japanese architecture, dark wood siding and elaborate roofs. You can find homes and businesses in this style throughout Japan, but Magom and Tsumago both have areas with exclusively traditional buildings (not a 7-Eleven in sight!) and old wooden water mills to boot.
Tsumago sits just over 8 kilometers north of Magome, an easy walk that lasts just over two hours at a comfortable place. As Tsumago is situated in Nagano and Magome is just across the border in Gifu, the short walk will include crossing the border between two prefectures.
Tsumago is a much more low-key alternative to Magome, which was jam packed with tourists on the day I visited over Golden Week. Both are charming small towns (tiny tiny towns!) but Magome’s main drags of shops and restaurants is situated on a fairly steep hill with a scenic lookout at the top of the town with views over the Kiso Valley, seemingly making it a much more popular site. The crowds thin out as soon as you pass the lookout, and the path immediately leads into a calming wooded area.
Halfway between the towns there is a pair of waterfalls, Men’s Waterfalls and Women’s Waterfalls. The majority of the route tracks through the woods, climbing up and down hills, occasionally crossing streams, and passing through several tiny clusters of houses.
One of my favorite things in Japan is the season when rice fields are flooded with water early in the spring. Apparently rice grows the same with or without water but it drowns the weeds (and looks so pretty!) so the method has become very widely used. Find your way to some rice fields at sun set and you’ll be met with a stunning pink view overhead and below your feet. (Or get near one of Japan’s many mountains and you can see twice the mountain for half the effort.) This section of the Nakasendo has plenty of charming rice fields any time of the year.
Our original plan was to hike from Magome up to Tsumago (supposedly the slightly less uphill direction, honestly it’s lots of ups and downs both ways) and grab one of the very infrequent buses back from Tsumago to Magome. Timing ended up that we would have had to wait over an hour for the next bus, which costs over ¥500, so we just decided to hike the route back and save the money and arrive in close to the same time. Depending on your schedule, hiking both ways isn’t a bad idea. If you have the time and funds, find a ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn) with an onsen along the route and spend a night immersing yourself in the Japanese countryside.
Link to a map that is much less detailed than you’d hope. The good news is as long as you get yourself to Magome or Tsumago the trail will be very easy to find and it continues to be well marked throughout this section of the trail.